Hollywood’s long-gestating plan to adapt Erik Larson‘s acclaimed serial killer book The Devil in the White City has hit yet another snag, to the point where a reasonable person might think it was some kind of cursed text. To which I say… only if you believe in curses.
No, as someone who has chronicled Hollywood development for nearly half of his life, this is pretty much par for the course in this town. Vexing to be sure, but not wholly atypical.
The latest blow? Director Todd Field and star Keanu Reeves have pulled out of Hulu’s limited series, offering no explanation for their exits. Both were on board to executive produce as well, while Reeves was attached to play Daniel H. Burnham, the legendary architect who served as a driving force behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
In the book, it’s Burnham whose destiny becomes intertwined with that of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a man considered by many to be America’s first serial killer, who built a “Murder Castle” in the Fair’s shadow.
The Devil in the White City has been in the works at Hulu since 2019 and was finally ordered to series this past August. It had previously been in the works as a feature from director Martin Scorsese that would’ve starred Leonardo DiCaprio (as Holmes), whose company acquired the rights way back in 2010.
Even before DiCaprio got his hands on the book, it was in development at Cruise/Wagner, the Paramount-based production company run by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. Their option lapsed in 2004, though Paramount reacquired the movie rights in 2007 and set it up with Sher and her producing partner at the time, Michael Shamberg, though the project only continued to languish in development.
And now here we are, nearly 20 years since the book’s publication, and still, no one has been able to crack it, likely because the thing that makes the book so interesting — its World’s Fair setting — also makes it so difficult to adapt, especially with two characters on parallel narrative tracks.
Anyway, Hulu is pressing forward and will surely have little trouble lining up a new director and high-profile star, especially with Scorsese and DiCaprio still onboard to executive produce alongside Appian Way’s Jennifer Davisson, as well as Stacey Sher, Mark Lafferty, Lily Byock, and showrunner Sam Shaw, who also adapted Larson’s book. ABC Signature is producing in association with Paramount Television Studios.
Reeves has a full dance card, so it was always going to be tough for him to make time for the first TV series of his career, though I imagine streamers will continue to line up for that honor. Meanwhile, Field is coming off strong reviews for his Cate Blanchett drama Tár, which could bring him his fourth Oscar nomination.
I know Craig Zobel just signed on to direct The Penguin for HBO Max, but he sure would’ve been an interesting choice for something like this. Perhaps Leo could entice someone like David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson to give it a go, though that may be overly wishful thinking, indeed.
As far as curses go, though, I expect this project to break the two-decade-old curse and recover relatively quickly — hopefully in time for the book’s 20th anniversary in 2023.